Philadelphia, PA – The 23rd-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish can secure their best start ever in Big East Conference play, but they'll need to knock off the Villanova Wildcats tonight in Philadelphia in order to do so.
Notre Dame enters this fray with an 18-8 overall record, but where the team has really excelled has been in conference as it has won 10 of its first 13 games. Currently, the Irish are tied with Marquette for second place in the Big East, just two games behind front-running Syracuse. UND has won seven straight games since dropping back-to-back bouts to UConn and Rutgers in mid- January.
At the outset of the 2011-12 campaign, many expected Villanova to experience a down year, but things have gone worse than even the usually-upbeat Jay Wright could have envisioned as the team is 11-14 overall and has won only four of its first 13 Big East tilts. The Wildcats have only win over a conference foe currently in the upper half of the league standings, that being against visiting Seton Hall on January 18. VU is 9-3 at home, with games having been played both on campus and at the Well Fargo Center in Philly, and it has won two of its last three in front of the frenzied locals.
Villanova owns an 18-15 lead in the all-time series with Notre Dame, but the Irish won last year's tussle in South Bend, 93-72. In that game, the home team drained a school-record 20 three-pointers. The Wildcats have a 13-5 edge in games played since Notre Dame joined the Big East back in 1995, but the two teams have split the last 10 meetings. The Irish last won at Villanova in January of 2008.
During its current seven-game win streak, of which three have come on the road, Notre Dame has turned up the defensive intensity, permitting an average of 55.3 ppg over that span. The Irish have allowed those seven teams to shoot a combined 38.3 percent from the floor, which includes a 25.7 percent effort from three-point range. UND's success this season is remarkable when you consider its best player, Tim Abromaitis has missed the majority of the year with a serious knee injury. In his absence, guys like Jerian Grant (13.0 ppg, 4.8 apg), Eric Atkins (12.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Jack Cooley (11.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg) have thrived, helping the team lay claim to favorable margins in scoring (+6.1), rebounding (+0.2) and turnovers (+0.4), albeit the last two just narrowly. Cooley logged his third straight double-double in a 71-53 win over Rutgers, as he matched his career high with 22 points while establishing a new personal best with 18 rebounds. He is averaging a double-double in Big East play (14.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg). The Irish had a total of four players reach double figures in scoring against the Scarlet Knights, and a 24-6 edge in points from the foul line helped make up for the fact that they shot just 40.0 percent from the field as a team.
Villanova will likely be playing this game without two of its starting guards, as both Maalik Wayns and James Bell recently suffered leg injuries that may keep them on the shelf for a while. The loss of Wayns is particularly painful considering he is team's lone star, averaging 17.8 ppg to rank fourth in the conference. More than just a scorer, Wayns is also the team's primary playmaker, having dished out 107 assists thus far -- his closest teammate has 47. Coach Wright is hoping guys like Dominic Cheek (12.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg), Mouphtaou Yarou (11.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and JayVaughn Pinkston (9.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) pick up the slack, as the Wildcats will need a complete team effort to be effective with their best player out of the lineup. Bell got hurt in the second half of Wednesday's 65-51 loss at USF, leaving reserve Maurice Sutton as the only player to reach double figures as he tallied 10 points in 17 minutes of action. Pinkston needs to redeem himself after going a dreadful 1- of-13 from the field, the team as a whole converting just 30.2 percent of its total shots while committing 14 turnovers. The Bulls broke open a tie game at intermission (20-20) by hitting a sizzling 68.4 percent of their field goal attempts in the second half, and by going a near-perfect 17-of-18 at the charity stripe in the period.